The novel Belchamber, first published in 1904, is the portrait of a sissy and as such it was initially disliked by everyone, including Henry James and Edith Wharton, who should have known better.* Curiously, the author, Howard Sturgis, was a beloved, amiable sissy who made no effort to hide his embroidery frame and the basket of silk thread he kept beside him at all times. Just as “Sainty,” the hero of his novel, finds the only happiness of his boyhood in his “work,” so Sturgis plied his needles with modest contentment and unremitting application.
Sturgis, however, had arranged his life much more satisfactorily than did his miserable character. Sainty has to give up his sewing. As his boisterous, athletic younger brother Arthur blurts out, “You’re jolly bad at games, and you like to sit and suck up to an old governess, and do needlework with her, like a beastly girl.” Whereas Sainty has no friends of his own and must submit to the wishes of his iron-willed Scottish evangelist of a mother, in real life Howard Sturgis surrounded himself with a family of distinguished and scintillating friends who adored him.
Sturgis was an American from a rich Boston family. His father, Russell Sturgis, had made money in the Philippines, but when he returned to Boston to enjoy his success he found the cost of living had become dauntingly high. He decided to go back to Asia with his family, but in transit they all stopped in London for several weeks—and never left. A bank, Baring Brothers, offered to make him a partner. Russell Sturgis accepted and soon was successful enough to maintain three houses, including a big country place, Givons Grove at Walton-on-Thames. He was wonderfully hospitable and was soon known as the “entertaining partner” at Baring’s (just as a character in Ford Madox Ford’s No More Parades is called “Breakfast Duchemin” after his splendid morning spreads).
Through his parents little Howard met such American luminaries as Charles Francis Adams and Edward Boit (a Boston artist who’d settled in Paris and whose daughters were painted by John Singer Sargent in one of the most technically astonishing canvasses of all time). Howard also met writers such as Thackeray (to whose fiction his own “caste-ridden” Belchamber has been compared) and Henry James, who was introduced to the family in the 1870s.
Howard was extremely attached to his parents, especially his mother. As a child he made his mother’s boudoir into his playroom, and she refused to correct him for his effeminacy. She murmured that he was “sweeter as he was.” As Howard’s cousin, the philosopher George Santayana, remarked:
As if by miracle, for he was wonderfully imitative, he became save for the accident of sex, which was not yet a serious encumbrance, a perfect young lady of the Victorian type.
For instance, when he would step over a puddle he’d automatically lift the edge of his coat “as the ladies in those days picked up their trailing skirts.”
He attended Eton and Cambridge (like Sainty), but unlike his character he courageously affirmed his effeminacy before his jeering classmates. His brothers had hoped Eton would make a man of Howard, but the plan came to nothing. Santayana praised his “inimitable honest mixture of effeminacy and courage, sensibility and wit, mockery and devoted love.”
Howard also attended art school but soon was entirely occupied with nursing his father and then his mother through long illnesses. Russell Sturgis died in 1887, when Howard was thirty-two, and his mother died the following year. Suddenly Howard was in possession of a large fortune—and had no direction in his life. As his friend A.C. Benson recalled, “He was almost in the condition of a nervous invalid, suffering from the long strain as well as from the shock of the double bereavement.” He made a year-long trip to America, where he met Edith Wharton and Santayana. He returned to England the following year, in 1889. He then sold a remote country house in Wales and bought a much more accessible and commodious one in Windsor, right next to Windsor Great Park and not far from Eton. It had been built only twenty years earlier and was cozy and comfortable with its wide verandas, vermillion brick walls, oeil-de-boeuf windows, and its single acre of rather frowsy gardens.
Inside, however, everything was perfectly tended—small rooms with deep chintz-covered armchairs and couches and little side tables and coal fires glowing in every grate. It was the height of comfort and Howard, who disliked exercise, would leave it only for the occasional “toddle” with Misery, his dog, into Windsor Park. Howard was envied for Mrs. Lees, his cook, and his expert, attentive butler. Perhaps he was even envied for his stolid, pleasant lover, William Haynes-Smith, known simply as “the Babe,” a man’s man who preferred cigars and the racing results in “the Pink ‘Un” to literary chat and The Golden Bowl. Eventually the Babe inherited what was left of Howard’s sadly depleted estate—and moved a wife in.
But for years and years Howard and the Babe ruled over Queen’s Acre, which was always called “Qu’Acre.” They received Howard’s many friends in such an unending stream that Howard confessed, “I feel at times like the unctuous manager of a smart hotel!” Most of the friends were male, many of them younger homosexuals, often from Eton, and they gathered in adulation around Henry James (after all, they had literary careers of their own to launch). They included Percy Lubbock, who would go on to enshrine James’s and Wharton’s ideas about the novel in The Craft of Fiction—he also wrote book-length portraits of James and Wharton. Another was the good-looking portly young writer Hugh Walpole (who purportedly once made an—unsuccessful—pass at the elderly and virginal James. Staggered by the initiative, James blubbered, “I can’t, I can’t”).
Arthur Benson, Edmund Gosse, and Gaillard Lapsley were all regular guests (Lapsley shared Edith Wharton’s enthusiasm for A.E. Housman and Proust). Wharton was one of the few women in the inner circle. She would travel with her fairly crazy husband Teddy over from France in her chauffeur-driven motorcar and swoop down on James in Sussex and whirl him off to Qu’Acre. She called the habitués of the house her “male wives.”
Everyone seems to have been happy there with the lively conversation, the alternate currents of stylish bitchiness and genuine affection, and the studied luxuries. Some of the guests would go on outings to nearby stately homes. They all loved reading aloud; James put aside his habitual stammer to cry forth with eloquence the rolling periods of Walt Whitman. James called Qu’Acre “a sybaritic sea.” Wharton was happy enough to leave behind the “anxious frugality” of James’s Lamb House for the “cheerful lavishness” of Qu’Acre. Santayana called Sturgis “host and hostess in one” and dubbed him a “universal mother.” Sometimes, of course, there were complaints in such a close-knit circle. As Hermione Lee puts it in her biography of Edith Wharton, “Hugging and yearning went along with satire and malice.”
Many of the guests were transplanted New Englanders or New Yorkers who were delighted to affirm among themselves their very American form of exclusiveness. It was a relief for them, who were so often condescended to by the superior English, to mock the King as an emperor of India who lived at neighboring Frogmore. They liked calling Edward VII an arch-vulgarian (the great French chef Escoffier claimed that the King—then Prince of Wales—liked to have caviar scattered over every dish, a preparation known as “à la Prince de Galles”). As fellow expatriates, Wharton and Lapsley would swap clippings from American papers with their favorite headlines about adultery, murder, and felony.
These New Englanders at Qu’Acre included Walter Berry (Wharton’s best friend and mentor), Morton Fullerton (a bisexual who became her lover—perhaps her first, since her marriage may have been sexless), Henry James, Lapsley, and Sturgis himself. As Percy Lubbock remarked, it was the only house in England where James was completely at home. In A Backward Glance, her memoir, Wharton writes that Sturgis sat next to the fire in a chaise longue,
his legs covered by a thick shawl, his hands occupied with knitting-needles or embroidery silks, a sturdily-built handsome man with brilliantly white wavy hair, a girlishly clear complexion, a black moustache, and tender mocking eyes under the bold arch of his black brows.
Such was Howard Sturgis, perfect host, matchless friend, drollest, kindest and strangest of men, as he appeared to the startled eyes of newcomers on their first introduction to Queen’s Acre.
The contrast of tenderness and mockery was noticed by all his friends, who remarked on his almost tearful kindness; after Sturgis’s first visit to Lamb House James asked him to live with him and years later Sturgis asked James the same thing—both unsuccessful bids. James once compared Sturgis to a big sugar cake that everyone—all his friends—feasted on. But Sturgis could also waspishly imitate his friends, especially James, including his maddening way of stammering as he groped after le mot juste. Just as Marcel Proust could reduce everyone to helpless laughter with his mimicry of his mentor, Robert de Montesquiou, in the same way Sturgis could “do” James—and perhaps this art of mimicry was linked to both men’s novel-writing talents.
In 1903 Sturgis passed along to James the first 160 pages of the proofs of Belchamber, his third—and as it turned out his last—novel. His first, Tim, had been the tale of a schoolboy crush at Eton. In his second, All That Was Possible, an epistolary novel, Sturgis had impersonated an actress who flees London for the peace and authenticity of Wales only to discover that Welsh men are as caddish as those in the capital.
Belchamber was altogether more ambitious. Sturgis worked on it intermittently for more than ten years. In it he draws the portrait of an English marquis who is also Baron St. Edmund and is nicknamed “Sainty,” a diminutive that is at once trivializing and an acknowledgment of his basic goodness. Just when Sainty is about to be sent to Eton and pushed onto the brutal playing fields, he is providentially injured in a riding accident. Lame and feeble, a partial invalid anchored to a raised shoe, Sainty is unable to participate in ordinary male games and the gentlemanly rites of hunting, much to his relief. From the beginning he was effeminate (more feminine than his bossy, controlling mother), but now he has an excuse for it.
Sainty is a complete contrast to his macho younger brother Arthur. When Arthur enters Eton he
took the place by storm with his frank and friendly manners, hatred of books, love of games, and perfectly obvious and understandable type of beauty.
Arthur remains uppermost in Sainty’s thoughts throughout the novel, first as an endearing but easily corrupted and brainless boy whom Sainty must look out for, then as someone who has been corrupted by his feline French cousin Claude Morland, who has introduced him to gambling and actresses. Claude—well-mannered and penniless—is suspiciously polite, a Gallic smooth operator:
Claude’s smile was a caress, the grasp of his hand an embrace; in later years a lady once said of him, that she always felt as if he had said something she ought to resent when he asked her how she did.
Whereas Henry James worked out his “international theme” of Americans versus Europeans, Sturgis pitted his supersubtle, suave, and immoral French characters (Claude against his grandmother, who was Lady Belchamber and now, en secondes noces, the Duchess of Sunborough) against his English elite, who are either puritanical (Sainty and his mother) or selfish and unbridled in their lust, covetousness, and capriciousness (Arthur and the woman who will become Sainty’s wife, Cissy Eccleston).
Sturgis brings up his big guns to satirize these English profligates. When Sainty attends one of his brother’s routs he thinks:
If this was the sort of entertainment Tannhäuser found in Venusberg, he thought the pilgrimage to Rome must have been an exhilarating change.
Elsewhere Arthur is supposed to be cramming in order to be admitted to the army but he keeps being lured away by the pleasures of the hunt. As Sturgis puts it:
It might be all very necessary that he should help to slaughter his fellow-men by and by, but the immediate duty was the destruction of pheasants….
If Sainty’s mother is a zealous evangelist whose faith is at odds with what English society expects of such a wealthy, titled woman, Sainty’s uncle is not troubled by his brand of Christianity:
His religion was of that comfortable, rational kind in which there is more state than church, and which is first cousin to agnosticism, but infinitely more respectable.
Perhaps because Howard Sturgis was so androgynous and such a keen observer and impersonator of women, he could be most unchivalrous in his descriptions of them:
She presented him to her mother, a terrible warning of what she was on the high road to become. This lady was a shorter and twenty years’ older edition of Lady Arthur, more coarsely painted, more frankly vulgar, more consentingly fat, and she wore an olive green wig of Brutus curls.
Sainty is the incarnation of everything the English gentleman was not supposed to be. He is bookish and is happiest during his years at Cambridge. He dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. He accuses himself of being a coward though the reader is not so sure; often he seems quite daring in espousing his eccentric beliefs. He is a great landowner who faints when he’s meant to address his tenant farmers. He admires boys, especially thoughtless, rugged ones like his brother, but he is hoodwinked into marrying a fortune-hunting girl remarkable for her acting abilities before the wedding and her cruelty after it. He is, worst of all, a virgin and a cuckold who does not take punitive action when his wife becomes pregnant by another man.
Sainty’s spinelessness, his refusal to fight back against his dictatorial mother and his mocking, abusive wife, are what James and Wharton both objected to. Perhaps if Sainty had been provided with Sturgis’s own acerbic wit or literary friends or stolid Babe they would have forgiven him. But even if Sainty has a satirical eye he keeps his own counsel and seldom translates his thoughts into speech.
Wharton was kinder than James. She reviewed the book favorably and in her memoirs she allowed how Sturgis had chosen a “difficult” subject and that this unfortunate choice revealed his “relative inexperience as a novelist.” Then, in a more ambivalent vein, she went on to say:
He has shown us, in firm, clear strokes the tragedy of the trivial, has shown us how the susceptibilities of a tender and serious spirit…may be crushed and trampled underfoot in the mad social race for luxury and amusement.
The modern reader takes exception. Maybe because of our own gender explorations we ask why the problems faced by an effeminate man constitute “the tragedy of the trivial.” Why is Sainty a “difficult” subject except insofar as he isn’t conventionally masculine? Nor can we quite see how Sainty is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to all his possessions and, at least initially, eager to hand them over to his brother, who he’s sure will make a more suitable Lord Belchamber.
Sainty’s great disappointment is not with his beautiful wife, whose superficiality he recognizes from the beginning though he hopes that somehow, miraculously, she might love him in spite of his ugliness. He thinks:
Jewels, clothes, a house in town, the means to feed the thankless rich, the power to walk out of the room before older women—if these things could make her happy, as far as they were his to give, let her take them in full measure. They were freely hers. He had no particular use for them himself.
No, Sainty’s real disenchantment comes when he discovers that his Cambridge mentor Newby is an unconscious hypocrite. Although Newby presents himself as an idealist tending toward socialism, he turns out to be overimpressed with Sainty’s wealth and lands as well as with the titles of the guests who attend Sainty’s coming- of-age festivities (one of the best sections of the book).
James wasn’t quite sure that Sturgis, as a mere American and commoner, had mastered all the details of the milieu of an English marquis and wondered if he shouldn’t have lowered everyone’s rank a notch or two; which was strange since Sturgis’s brother-in-law was a marquis (but maybe James had forgotten that). Then James found the end terribly rushed since (according to him) what is interesting in a novel is not the events (and the end of Belchamber is very eventful) but how they strike the governing central intelligence. To James, one gathers, Sainty was not sufficiently alive to his circumstances. No, he was nothing but a “poor rat.”
James’s objections are for the most part cryptic, as if he didn’t want to assault Sturgis too directly, but he seems to want Sainty to be more a man, even a sexually performing man:
You keep up the whole thing bravely—and I recognize the great difficulty involved in giving conceivability to your young man’s marriage. I am not sure you have taken all the precautions necessary—but one feels, in general, that Sainty’s physiology, as it were, ought to be definitely and authoritatively established and focussed: one wants in it a positive side—all his own—so that he shall not be all passivity and nullity.
Elsewhere James comments on a scene where Cissy halfheartedly attempts to seduce Sainty so that she’ll have an excuse for being pregnant:
I wish [Sainty’s] failure to conjoin with [his wife] about 2 a.m. that night on the drawingroom sofa, could for his sake have been a stand-off determined by some particular interposing, disconcerting, adequate positive fact…something not so merely negative for him….
In another letter James elaborates: “Suffice it for the present that I am perhaps just a wee bit disappointed in the breadth of the celebrated nuptial night scene….” Does he mean it’s too long or too short? Too detailed or not specific enough?
Would James have been happier if Sainty had insisted on his conjugal rights? If, improbably, he had raped Cissy? But that would have been another novel and another character. It seems almost ludicrous that Wharton and James, who may have both been virgins at this point, should be bullying Sturgis about his lack of heterosexual expertise.
Amazingly, James writes in a later letter, “Start next year another book and let me anonymously collaborate.” This is the same strange offer he made to several other writer friends, so certain was James that he alone knew how to write a proper novel. Still, in spite of all his objections, James predicts that the book, which was “never for a moment dull,” would be a roaring success—a dubious compliment since he was certain that the public was ignorant (“no one notices or understands anything, and no one will make a single intelligent or intelligible observation about your work”). But even so James can’t resist adding that Sainty lacks a self and that as a result the reader keeps asking, “To whom is it happening?”
This criticism was sufficiently damning that Sturgis threatened to withdraw the book from publication. James shrieked:
If you think of anything so insane you will break my heart and bring my grey hairs, the few that are left me, in sorrow and shame to the grave.
Repeatedly James assures him that the book would be very successful with the British public (which he calls “the BP”).
It wasn’t. Typically the TLS wrote that Belchamber “is a literary work rather than a work of literature,” which presumably means it was uninspired and unpersuasive if carefully elaborated. The other critics were equally harsh, objecting to Cissy as a disagreeable woman and Sainty as a weakling, and the book sank quickly out of sight. It had to wait until the 1930s, a decade and more after Sturgis’s death, to be hailed as a classic by E.M. Forster in an essay he collected in Abinger Harvest. One critic, George Thomson, even argues that Sturgis may have influenced Forster’s earliest fiction. Thomson points out that Belchamber is intimate (in its direct access to the pathos of Sainty’s feelings) and ironic (in its satirical portraiture of most of the other characters). Thomson argues that Forster adopted the ironic tone but rejected being on an intimate footing with the main characters—what we might call “doting.” Forster never dotes on his characters but rather treats them all with a bracing dose of ironic distance.
Santayana was clearly influenced by Belchamber in The Last Puritan, “a memoir in the form of a novel” that he took forty years to write. By 1966 the anonymous reviewer of the TLS was calling a reissue of Belchamber “a remarkable book.” The supporting cast, the reviewer wrote, “was a collection of deplorable though intensely lifelike characters, which include some of the most appalling women to be encountered in all fiction.” In fact they seem no worse than the women in the slightly later Guermantes Way.
After Belchamber Sturgis wrote almost nothing except a short story in which a younger writer is severely criticized by his imperious mentor and commits suicide. In the story, “The China Pot,” a stand-in for James called John Throckmorton lets slip several half-uttered but damning criticisms of an unfinished novel by Sturgis’s double, Jimmy. Mortally wounded, Jimmy withdraws from society. He cannot go on living while knowing that his hero, Throckmorton, thinks he is talentless. He kills himself. At the funeral Throckmorton pretends that he can’t fathom why Jimmy, who had “everything,” would have committed suicide. Jimmy’s best friend also pretends out of politeness to be mystified.
In real life Sturgis was much more sanguine about giving up his writing career. His friend A.C. Benson said that he thought Sturgis had all the makings of a great writer except the drive. Perhaps he was right. Though Sturgis ran through his fortune and fell on hard times toward the end of his life (he even proposed that Santayana live with him as a paying guest), he still seemed to be enjoying himself. He told Wharton after he underwent unsuccessful surgery for cancer, “I’m enjoying dying very much.”
March 6, 2008